The presenter of The Repair Shop, Jay Blades, recalls a chance stop for petrol in Wolverhampton which changed his life, launched his TV career and made him proud to call the Midlands his home
The trademark black cap and thick rimmed glasses are ever-present. As is the London accent which has turned “How you doing?” and “You take care now” into catchphrases of one of the most popular – and possibly surprising – TV shows ever. But don’t be fooled by the genial East End twang of the front man of BBC’s Repair Shop. Jay’s heart is well and truly in the Midlands, with both his business interests and his home rooted here.
Jay moved to the area nine years ago, the result of a time when his life was proving anything but a success after a youth charity he set up went bust, together with his first marriage. With nowhere to live, he ended up by chance in Wolverhampton where he filled up his car with petrol and slept a couple of nights on the back seat before deciding he might as well stay here.
Since that fateful decision Jay has gone from strength to strength, thanks to a series of top TV shows, led by The Repair Shop, the renovate and restore phenomenon which has won a TV BAFTA award as well as the royal seal of approval when King Charles appeared in a special episode.
MADE IN THE MIDLANDS
Last October, Jay also presented a three-part TV series, Midlands Through Time, which explored the secrets of his adopted home, uncovering the truth behind the likes of the Staffordshire Hoard, Lady Godiva, Wedgwood, the famous Black Country dialect and the Balti.
Now, Jay’s teamed up with comedy and acting legend Sir David Jason for David and Jay’s Touring Toolshed, a 15-part series which recently launched on BBC2. The show sees the twosome hit the road to help members of the public, professional makers and enthusiasts take their crafts to the next level. Sir David admits to having a keen interest himself in crafts and tinkering, so he and Jay make the perfect team, and the chemistry between them is obvious from the first minute of the first broadcast
The series sees them park up their toolshed at UK air shows, steam rallies, county fairs and vintage festivals to meet some of the UK’s most talented crafters, makers and tinkerers – as well as people who could use a little help! It’s a kind of Repair Shop with all the bells and whistles on wheels, if you like, which also includes visiting local enthusiasts whose hobbies have taken over their lives.
Jay described the shows as “one of the best” he’s been involved in. “People come to us who have a particular problem or stumbling block within their craft, and then we team them up with an expert that allows them to go home with a skill that they can continue doing’” he explained.
DREAM COME TRUE
Jay described working with Sir David as “a dream come true”. He added: “Imagine watching him as you’re growing up and then imagine you’re able to work with him. Are you kidding me? There was a moment where I just looked over my shoulder and I’m like ‘oh, that is really Sir David Jason and I’m having an ice-cream with him. Wow!”
While now firmly a man of the Midlands, Jay was born in Brent, North London and raised in Hackney, East London. After leaving school he worked as a labourer and in factories before enrolling at a university as a mature student studying criminology. It was only then, at the age of 31, that he was diagnosed as dyslexic with the reading ability of an 11-year-old.
The charity, Out of the Dark, which he set up to train disadvantaged young people in furniture restoration lost its funding which is when he became homeless. But as he settled into a new life in the Midlands, TV producers saw a short film about the charity which led to his work as a presenter, and eventually to his role fronting The Repair Shop. His move also saw him set up Jay & Co, a social enterprise to support disadvantaged and disengaged groups which Jay describes as “modern furniture restorers which takes old pieces, injects them with invention, and creates something which gets people talking”.
BRUM SWEET BRUM
The business follows Jay’s own love for the skills used in furniture repairs which he taught himself and picked up from master craftsmen and women along the way. “It’s called upcycling now, but I’ve always done repairs. Growing up in a poor family we had to do that,” he explained.
Jay’s Touring Toolshed is the latest in a growing number of TV credits which has also included the likes of Christmas Strictly Come Dancing, Celebrity MasterChef, a documentary about learning to read at 51 and a radio appearance on Desert Island Discs. As well as meeting with King Charles, Jay was made an MBE in 2021 for his services to craft. And in 2022, he married his second wife.
“I’ve lived in the West Midlands since 2015 and I love Birmingham and the Black Country – it’s a place I’m proud to call home,” he said. “Everyone thinks of Cadbury’s chocolate, canals and Peaky Blinders when you say Birmingham and those things are true but also there’s so much more. Without the West Midlands, the history of the UK, indeed the world, would not have been the same.”